WASHINGTON — The Senate on Thursday voted to invoke the so-called “nuclear option,” paving the way for Republicans to break a Democratic filibuster of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch.
The controversial move will change Senate rules, allowing filibusters of Supreme Court picks to be broken with only 51 votes instead of 60.
Republicans control the Senate, 52-48, and will now vote to break the Democratic filibuster with the new 51-vote threshold.
The Senate is expected to vote to confirm Gorsuch, who sits on the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver and lives in Boulder, on Friday.
Triggering the nuclear option came after Senate Democrats earlier blocked the nomination of Gorsuch under the previous 60-vote threshold, 55-45.
The action Thursday and Friday will cap more than a year of tension over an empty Supreme Court seat, as both parties in the Senate are poised to take action leading to an outcome neither party wants.
It’s a head-scratching situation loaded with nuance, procedural twists and Senate history — not to mention a spot on the nation’s highest court — and a standoff that reflects a peak in polarization following a deeply divisive presidential election.
Republicans are positioned to use the nuclear option to make a permanent and controversial change in Senate rules and overcome the filibuster of President Donald Trump’s nominee.
Both sides are crying foul.
Democrats want Republicans to pick another nominee. Republicans want Democrats to show more bipartisanship and allow Gorsuch to advance through the process.
And no one wants a change in the rules because it could lead to even more partisan animosity down the road, forever changing a historic element of the Senate.
Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine was heavily involved in the bipartisan conversations to find a compromise, but she said Wednesday they were simply unsuccessful.
“I’ve had midnight calls on this, 6:30 a.m. calls on this,” she said. “Worked all weekend and we just couldn’t get here.”
A Democratic aide in the Senate, who asked not to be named to speak more freely, called the impasse a “damn shame.”
“There’s been plenty of appetite from both sides to find a way to avoid this, and even hope that we might at times, but it looks like that’s over,” the aide said. “This is happening. And it’s a damn shame. This hurts both parties in the long term because it hurts the institution.”
Republicans can get around the obstacle, but it would require using the unprecedented “nuclear option,” a change in Senate rules that would lower that 60-vote threshold for Supreme Court nominees down to a simple majority of 51.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will take a series of procedural steps to position the Senate to revote on that same motion to break the filibuster.
Usually these steps are done quickly by unanimous consent, but because Democrats are angry and protesting, they could force multiple roll-call votes to do this.
A majority vote is needed to approve these motions. Democrats could take other steps — like multiple parliamentary inquiries and possibly other roll call votes — to try to stall the nomination the Senate.
But they can’t prevent a vote on Gorsuch.
Once McConnell has finally positioned to revote on breaking the filibuster, he could make a point of order that it should take 51 votes instead of 60 to overcome a filibuster of a Supreme Court nominee — this is the nuclear option.
There will be a roll call vote to affirm that position, and a majority vote is needed for this to pass.
Not all GOP senators have confirmed they will support the nuclear option — such as Sen. Bob Corker and Collins — and Republicans can’t afford to lose more than three of their own.
So all eyes will be on this vote. Vice President Mike Pence is supposed to be available to break a tie if needed.
Once the nuclear option is completed, the Senate will cast a second vote to break the filibuster at the new lower 51-vote threshold.
Next will come 30 hours of additional debate time, per Senate rules, before a final vote on Gorsuch’s confirmation, which is expected sometime Friday evening.